First years don't prove a thing - look to Labour history ...

The omens for Blair

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CONSENSUSES are funny. When one is really raging, it is hard for anybody to stand outside it without appearing ridiculous. At present, such a consensus exists about the Blair government. Observers acknowledge Tony Blair's exceptional luck, but they are virtually unanimous in their appreciation of his political skills. One year after taking office, practically everybody has become New Labour - even Margaret Thatcher. William Hague seems the most New Labour of the lot.

The admiration is probably justified. If the Government has been lucky - suicidal Tory party, buoyant economy, US president desperately in need of a friend, and so on - well, in politics, you make your own luck, and Blair has exploited his own good fortune with exquisite adroitness. The reward has been a worldwide popularity unmatched for a British politician since the days of Churchill. It is extraordinary, and heartening, to see the way tables are turned. Other countries (Germany, Japan), with their economies in the doldrums, wonder what the secret is, and want a Blair too.

Yet trouble-free episodes in British politics have been so rare and brief that it is hard not to find something eerie about the present millpond. If the Prime Minister has ordered his courtiers to keep anniversary celebrations sotte voce, his caution may well be prudent, as in so many other things.

New Labour, new era, new trajectory? Possibly. But if so, the break with precedents will have to be emphatic. For the truth is that Labour honeymoons have always ended in tears.

The earliest comparison is with Ramsay MacDonald, Labour's first-ever premier, who took office in January 1924, and was the only previous premier to have had no prior government experience.

MacDonald was physically imposing, prone to morally-uplifting rhetoric, good at diplomacy, a commanding figure in his party, dismissive of the Left, good with the upper classes, and Scottish. Like Blair, he strove to turn Parliament into a grand council of state rather than a confrontational arena, and quickly disposed of media worries about Labour's fitness to govern. His first few months were a great relief to Buckingham Palace, which harboured a suspicion that a Labour government might lead to a Bolshevik revolution.

However, the analogy ends there. Labour's minority status made the Government dependent on the Liberals, who quickly pulled the rug out, forcing an autumn election. Thus, the first Labour administration had no complete first year. The second MacDonald administration (May 1929 to August 1931) had to cope from the outset with the fallout from the Wall Street stock- market crash. Unemployment soared, and the government's anniversary was marked by the resignation of Sir Oswald Mosley - the first of a series of splits that culminated in the government's demise the following summer.

A different comparison is provided by the 1945 administration. Like Blair's government, the Attlee one had a large House of Commons majority, and faced a cowed and ineffective opposition. Like New Labour, it was even more popular one year in than it had been at the time of its election.

Labour in 1945 was certainly radical. Gordon Brown's initial act as Chancellor was, symbolically, to cut the Bank of England loose: in 1945, Chancellor Hugh Dalton's first move, equally symbolical, was to take the Bank into public ownership. That was only the beginning, Soon afterwards, coal, civil aviation, electricity and the railways were ticked off Herbert Morrison's nationalisation shopping list, while steps began to set up a health service and welfare state.

Dalton called 1946 "annus mirabilis", a phrase Blairites might apply to 1998. Unfortunately, a miraculous first 12 or 18 months was followed by "annus horrendus" in 1947 - involving a fuel shortage and financial crisis that curtailed the Labour programme, came close to toppling the prime minister, and marked a turning-of-the-tide for a government that had hitherto seemed set for ten years in office.

The Attlee administration was not the last Labour one to fall from grace, after an initial success. Much the same happened to the government of Harold Wilson in the 1960s. Again, there are some parallels with New Labour. Like Blair, Wilson was a young and energetic politician who took over the party leadership when a predecessor died unexpectedly. Like Blair, Wilson led a largely untried team in cabinet.

Seldom has British parliamentary politics witnessed such deftness as shown by Wilson in his first year: as he turned a tiny majority to his own advantage, making party unity the watchword. Internationally, Wilson was congratulated for his statesmanlike handling of the problem of Southern Rhodesia, which was threatening UDI: domestically, there was excitement over the unveiling, in September 1965, of the National Plan by George Brown, the John Prescott-figure of the day. The new premier was idolised by the press, and his popularity in the country was so great, compared with that of his Conservative opposite number, that the Tories adopted a new method of selecting a leader.

Twelve months after taking office, the headlines buzzed with announcements of pledges fulfilled. During the autumn and winter months of 1965-6, Labour led in the polls, and in the March 1965 general election, Wilson increased his parliamentary majority, while Labour continued to present itself as a band of busy, able and efficient ministers who believed in the modernising message they brought to the nation.

If any of that sounds familiar, the comparison is not a comfortable one for the present cabinet, for it all turned to dust a few weeks later. In July 1966, a sterling crisis and its deflationary outcome effectively demolished the government's economic strategy. Labour in 1945-7 and 1964- 6 had been able to walk tall: by contrast, the fragile follow-up Labour governments of Wilson in 1974-6 and Jim Callaghan in 1976-9 were limited by threadbare or non-existent majorities and stunted by recurrent crises.

However, governments do not always slide remorselessly downward, and there is also one other fairly recent - non-Labour - comparison, to bear this out. One year after winning in 1979, Margaret Thatcher trailed in the polls, as manufacturing industry collapsed and unemployment rose. By the end of 1981, Gallup gave the Conservatives a mere 23 per cent of the vote, their worst showing ever. Then came the Falklands conflict, the premier's metamorphosis into the Iron Lady, and the Tories' legendary win in the 1993 election.

Is it better for a government to do well or badly in its first year? Every premier would opt for doing well, and Blair could scarcely have done better. Yet every premier also knows that getting through year one is not the end of the story.

History cannot tell us what the future holds for the present prime minister: whether a crippling collapse, or an enhancing triumph. However, what the past does suggest is that any judgement on the present government is premature, and that the real test - a make-or-break financial crisis, a foreign war or whatever - that will decide Blair's place in history, is yet to happen.

Ben Pimlott is author of biographies of Hugh Dalton, Harold Wilson and the Queen, and is Warden-elect of Goldsmiths College, London.

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